A dairy farm turned leisure pursuit and function venue, Hounslow Hall estate still operates as a farm but is now so much more
Situated just outside of Milton Keynes, this family-run business is building its reputation as a team building and ‘away day’ destination as well as a wedding and festival venue. Open Air Business talks to operations director Mark Stopps about the team’s multi-channel approach to diversification into the outdoor hospitality sector.
When did you start your function venue business and what is its history?
Experience the Country was founded in 2011 at Hounslow Hall estate, with the primary purpose of utilising an off-road course left empty by the departure of Land Rover Experience. I was working on the farm and helped build and run the course for 10 years. The estate owners, Bryan and Val Wood, have been diversifying their farm activities from well before ‘diversification’ became a buzz word, so when Land Rover moved out we took it on and added clay shooting and fly fishing to the activities on offer for corporate away days and the leisure market. From there, we evolved to offer Segway tours, quad biking, Zorb football and archery, along with more unusual activities such as axe throwing and bushcraft.
As well as the experiential activities, we are a function and events venue. Bryan and Val’s granddaughter Helen is taking over managing the estate as a venue for weddings and private parties. We have separated this part of the business off and given it its own brand – Tip Top Venues. We also offer the estate out for dry hire to event organisers, and have hosted several festivals including Into the Wild.
Tell us about your location and site
The Hounslow Hall Estate covers 800 acres of the Buckinghamshire countryside and is located on the western edge of Milton Keynes. Originally a dairy farm, the land is now used for arable crops. Owner Bryan’s entire dairy herd was wiped out in the 1980s due to TB, so he diversified into turf growing and by offering units out for business use. His entrepreneurial spirit has seen him build the estate from nothing – I have a huge amount of respect for him. Both in their 80s, he and Val still work full time.
The estate has some beautiful, distinct locations, each of which can be used as individual venues. These include an intimate lakeside setting, pastures, gardens, rolling hills and ‘Bow Piece,’ a larger expanse of land that is used for festivals.
What are the different sides of your function venue business and how did they develop?
Experience the Country offers three key services: corporate events, leisure activities for individuals and couples, and professional training courses. Tip top venues is the venue hire side of the business. We have a landing page for Experience the Country which sets out the estate’s four offerings, each then has its own website designed to appeal to the target audience. Our team is quite unique in that we have members from several generations – from octogenarians through to people in their 20s. We all contribute to the brainstorming process, so we get an excellent cross section of ideas and insights that we hope are reflected in the presentation of our services.
What facilities for outdoor functions do you offer?
As well as our purpose-built off road driving course and activities, we have a huge indoor arena which was a structure left by a business previously based at the estate. It is 35x20m and can be used for all sorts of activities if the weather is bad. We can also line it out so it is suitable for weddings and conferences.
For corporate clients, there is a light, spacious meeting room that can accommodate up to 60 people in various configurations. Measuring 5.5x12m, it has air conditioning and views across open countryside. We also have an on-site cafe that we are looking at developing further.
On the wedding side of things, we are about to step things up gear. We are currently not licensed for ceremonies, but are a perfect place to hold a blessing, and of course the reception. We work with local suppliers for marquees, catering etc. to ensure we receive the levels of service we require and our customers expect. In the early days, this was a little trial and error, but we now have a great suppliers list.
What services do you offer?
The level of service we offer very much depends on our clients’ needs. It can range from simple dry hire of our event pitches through to full event management. We have an excellent, experienced team and are used to tailoring packages to individual needs, be it a wedding, corporate activity day or other event.
As far as our activities go, we offer off-road driving in both Land Rovers and our 4×4 truck, quad bike treks, Segway tours, clay shooting, a ‘crazy car’ experience, archery, axe throwing, air rifle shooting, and more. We work with selected partners for some of the activities while delivering the majority in-house.
How do you work with your customers to make their event unique?
Due to the sheer number of options available to our guests, every event is unique. With the range of activities on offer, guests can really go to town, whether they are booking for a team building day, stag or hen party, wedding, or just to come and have fun.
As a venue, we have so many different areas – from large expanses of land to small, intimate locations – that we can tailor a package for almost anyone. Our team is also on hand to guide guests through the options, introduce our suppliers and offer ideas.
How do you publicise yourself?
For our leisure business, we concentrate our marketing on the social media platforms, which works well to attract smaller groups and individuals.
For the corporate side, we make sure to get to as many networking events as possible. Being on the outskirts of Milton Keynes means we are well positioned for business use but it is an uphill struggle to find the right person in each business to target. More often than not there isn’t an HR manager who oversees team building and away days; they are usually managed by someone within the team attending. We have found that sponsoring various events in the community and offering prizes for school raffles pays dividends, as it gets our name out and a bit about what we do. You’d be surprised how many people are in business that find us that way.
How would you describe your ‘style’ or unique selling point?
Our USP is definitely our setting. Look East and you can see right into the centre of Milton Keynes, with the Xscape snowdome visible most days. Look West and you look out over the rolling Buckinghamshire countryside. We are also incredibly flexible – we can be slick and corporate or we can be bush craft and camping.
What challenges have you faced?
Luckily, we have not had to deal with planning issues for our activities as much of that was worked out in the good old days when things were a lot simpler. Our neighbours are also pretty good. Apart from the weather, that presents us with differing problems each year, our main challenge is what to do with all our ideas! We are currently looking at open air film screenings, glamping and mud runs to name a few.
What are your plans for next season?
We continue to look at ways to expand the business and to continue to grow. We have set aside about four acres for a Maize Maze, situated just outside our offices. This will be a great addition to the activities on-site, as well as an attraction for our summer events.
Describe your average day mid-season
We usually open the office around 7.30am, it gives us a chance to work through any emails and messages and get the coffee brewed. The majority of the staff arrive about an hour later, and once everyone is in we hold our morning briefing, assigning tasks and duties.
Our guests usually start to arrive at 9am and head out for their activities. We welcome them back in with drinks and snacks before they head on their way. The last guests usually depart at 5pm and the clear up begins. Vehicles and quads are washed down and refuelled, Segways are put on charge and equipment is tidied away ready for the next day.
Every now and again the temptation of a beer and a barbecue gets the better of us and we succumb to a slighter later night and a few laughs.
Do you enjoy the business?
Absolutely. Every day is different. Every guest arrives with an expectation and we love the challenge of meeting those.
What advice could you give to others wishing to diversify into outdoor hospitality?
Do your research. We were fortunate enough to be able to adopt an existing business plan. We knew the formula worked and, when we have needed to, tweaking that plan has been relativity straight forward.
R&R Marquees – 01908 511144 www.rrmarquees.co.uk
Country Tipis – 07486 542374 www.countrytipis.co.uk
The Natural Tent Company – 07766 667496 www.thenaturaltentcompany.com
Hels’ Bells Tents – 07977 129035 www.madeinenglandbyhelenfryer.co.uk
BARS & CATERING
The Cocktail Car Company – 07808 529639 www.thecocktailcar.com
HEATING, POWER & LIGHTING
Paragon – 01280 822282 www.paragontoolhire.com
TOILETS & SHOWERS
JB Event facilities – 0845 130 1118 www.jbeventfacilities.co.uk
Drayton Road, Newton Longville
Buckinghamshire, MK17 0BU